by Jim Nisbet
I parked on Turk about a block east of Original Joe’s and walked west toward Taylor. Turk at Taylor remains a feral San Francisco nexus, and I was there at dusk on Thanksgiving. Everybody knows what the winter holidays do to normal people; but for abnormal people, it’s worse. Holiday energy, specific to any given urban site, virtually crackled above the trash-strewn gutters. Where payday is more rumored than honored even its dearth remains to be coped with, an anti-force to be adroitly negotiated, not unlike that basic training exercise that forces men to crawl under a three-foot ceiling of live machine gun fire, every tenth round a tracer; in which a simple fact—if you stand up you get cut down—is well understood. But there are men who remember this exercise as conducted in the swamps of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where, with just enough frequency to keep everybody alert, some green recruit crawling through the muck finds himself face to face with a cottonmouth water moccasin—and he will stand straight up into the whistling din. It’s a natural reaction, after all; and, just as naturally, he gets cut right back down.
Without money, without family, with nothing but despair in the account to draw against, "the holidays" are a comparable exercise in the existential crossfire of damned if you do them versus damned if you don’t do them.
A line of urban refugees, mostly men, their clothing weathered to a uniform drabness, trailed for nearly a block west of Taylor, along the south-side sidewalk of Turk, waiting for the distinctly unshabby version of turkey with all the trimmings as put down by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and dished up by an equally unshabby mix of local politicians, celebrities and socialites. It’s a San Francisco tradition.
North across Turk, in the unfenced dirt lot on the corner, any number of people are hanging around conducting, or having conducted, or waiting to conduct, some sort of drug business. Across Taylor there’s a 24-hour sex show—kitty-corner, as it were, from the soup kitchen—and the upper floors of the surrounding buildings are populated by the denizens of the fixed-income world, at fixed-income prices.
All manner of life teems at Turk and Taylor, but despite transecting it with the purposeful strut of he-who-minds-one’s-own-business, it’s difficult not to witness a drug transaction there. You can walk with your head down as well, but it’s no use; inevitably a couple of midgets will be down there, exchanging Viagra for crack among the love jackets. To look away is to catch the flash of somebody’s else’s five-dollar bill, as it surfs through the mime of a salutation. There’s the machinegun fire, there’s the water moccasin. Yet the Tenderloin Original Joe’s remains a favorite with certain among one’s acquaintance, those of us who don’t mind paying for the privilege of eating turkey with all the trimmings and a side of whiskey, and eating it alone. For we all have our issues with the holidays, do we not? All year long, night after night, until the joint burned down in 2007, Joe’s steaks were as big and thick as a whorehouse welcome mat, and, two nights a year, Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, the largess of their so-called comfort food was hard to beat at any price.
But back to then. The aroma of garlic and breadcrumb stuffing, with secret ingredients like cloves, green olives, chestnuts and dried apricots, whetted my appetite from half a block away, and nearly overwhelmed the reek of exhaust fumes, disinfectant, puke, and fortified urine. But as I stepped north off the curb at Taylor and Turk, I clocked a guy eating popcorn out of a gallon bucket, yellow and red stripes on white cardboard, the kind of family-size tub you’d buy at the movies, about the size of an inverted lampshade. Maybe they sell popcorn in the porn theater, was my first thought; after which I didn’t want to think about it anymore.
This guy stood in the bus zone in front of the bustling, trash-strewn lot across Taylor from the porn theater, happily shoveling fistfuls of popcorn into his mouth as he dreamily watched the scene around him. He appeared as detached and content as if the street itself were the movie, and in that delusion, insofar as the scene at that intersection influences foreign policy, say, he wouldn’t have been far wrong. In every direction action parallaxed the rays of light from the action beyond it, and the next after that, and the one beyond that ... a bona fide 3-D stop-motion panopticon of hustle that might as well have been an instructional frieze at the Taj Majal, except that, instead of being carved into stone it stank and moved and made noise.
Thus fascinated and engaged, Popcorn Man didn’t notice an Eldorado as it eased its considerable length into the bus zone behind him, as purposeful and entitled as a moray eel sliding into its burrow, as silent as a lantern slide. He didn’t notice it, that is, until it honked a two-tone horn, so loud its twin bells might just as easily have glaring down at him from above the cowcatcher on the lead locomotive of the Coast Starlight.
The startled popcorn eater caught his bucket before it dropped to the street, and he turned to find the Cadillac’s rude grille virtually under his elbow, with a pair of steer horns extending a couple of feet to either side of him, like the pincers of a large scorpion. The machine had definitely encroached upon his private space. To his east growled three lanes of traffic. Ditto south. The west showed a little bit of sidewalk, but the vacant lot churned and seethed just beyond it. And to his north purred the implacably keratinous Eldorado.
The popcorn eater’s only real and sub-suicidal option was to step west, onto the sidewalk. Maybe this variation on the urban vector equilibrium, of which way a pedestrian should jump so that he might continue to live while some motor vehicle completes an illegal maneuver, a U-turn into a handicap zone, say, or an accelerated lurch through a red light, gave pause to the popcorn eater; as if manifesting a hint of defiance, however, he hesitated before the five thousand pounds of low-slung steel, two-thirds of it a hood the size of a king-sized bed; he decelerated his popcorn intake until it got down to one pensive kernel at a time. The last one he levered up to his mouth seemed to take a long time getting there.
The Eldorado sounded its horn a second time.
The popcorn eater turned his head and looked at the southbound traffic, then cast his eye north, a gesture that seemed to suggest that the Cadillac had plenty of room to park between the popcorn eater and a beat-up Plymouth quite legally squatting well beyond the opposite end of the bus zone, some thirty feet away. The driver of the Eldorado, however, now caused the massive vehicle to lurch south an inch—the horns across the hood lifted and settled as if they actually were on a slow-motion rodeo bull of intimidating repute: this guy wanted to park illegally. The popcorn eater raised an eyebrow, affecting bemusement. A bystander wouldn’t have said, exactly, that the popcorn eater wanted to get himself run over; but the man was definitely at the brink of exhausting his alternative options. The Eldorado driver honked his horn a third time, a little longer than necessary, unambiguously insistent. The popcorn eater nodded slowly, as if to himself, and stepped onto the curb.
Unusual vibrations transfer, more or less intact, through the medium of a surrounding populace, much like a ripple in water, undamped and unimpeded. In a neighborhood where drugs, flesh, stolen electronics and unregistered weapons are being bought, sold, traded, flashed, restolen, resold, impounded, lost and found, a confrontation, even if silent, has no less effect than that of an ultrasonic whistle in a colony of guide dogs. Heads turn, no less alert for their casual demeanor, and hands slip beneath lapels, ostensibly to scratch, which after all is what junkies do best, but in fact to linger. Deals pause mid-handoff. Palmed bindles and folded twenties wobble out toward their reciprocals and boomerang back, unconsummated. An interrogative instability haunts the air. What beef is it, that oscillates the immoral gelatin? Cops, if inconvenient, remain worthy of half-serious attention. But if it’s merely some jerk ...?
So it wasn’t just me, who slowed to a crawl at the far end of the crosswalk, atop the curb at the north-east corner of Taylor and Turk, whose intersection I’d normally penetrate at a quite-late-for-minding-my-own-business-elsewhere type pace. Quite a few people likewise were casually observing without appearing to stare at the contretemps between Popcorn Man and the Cadillac—a dual-substantive worthy of any pseudosophical best-seller list, entitling a book concerning a spiritual and very personal quest through the nether worlds of dialectical materialism. Half the people in line for turkey with all the trimmings watched unabashedly: what did they have to lose? And besides, at least as much as anybody else in the neighborhood at that moment, the supplicants belonged where they were.
The Eldorado gained another two yards into the bus zone and rocked to a halt. Its long driver’s door swung open, blocking half the adjacent southbound lane, but no driver there complained, not audibly anyway, and didn’t even swerve but politely stopped and waited. For now from the driver’s seat of the Eldorado emerged a man of substance, if he were to be judged by his suede maroon fedora, by his matching three-piece maroon suit, by his open-collared shirt and bechained bull neck, by the mustard yellow kerchief carefully folded into his outer breast pocket, by the golden threads embroidered into his vest, by his immaculately shined black cowboy boots, by his golden, belly-girdling watch chain, by his loose-banded golden wristwatch with a face as circumglobular as a last month’s Hallowe’en moon; or, perhaps, by his six-and-a-half-foot stature; or by his well-distributed two-and-a-half hundred pounds. And maybe the left armpit of the suit had been tailored to accommodate a bulge, maybe not; but the man wearing it certainly didn’t look like he would need that kind of help. No, not at all, for, if he looked like anything the driver of the Eldorado looked ... self-sufficient.
Now, your narrator did slow his walk to a crawl, to stealthily gawk among the crowd at the northeast corner of Turk and Taylor. Not only did this well-tailored individual deign to ignore Popcorn Man, who now thoughtfully masticated atop the curb, beyond the north-south jetway of the Eldorado hood, but he didn’t even bother to lock the car’s door. This may have been construed as a concession to the urban reality that, if its doors are locked, a thief will simply break a car’s window. But, judging not only by the car itself, which, aside from the longhorns mounted atop its radiator grille also sported gold-flecked candy maroon paint, as well as an ostensible-leather landau top, complete with a swash and gilded olde-English S behind the passenger window, along with a matching continental kit angling up from the rear bumper, complemented by chrome wire wheels with maroon inner rims and gold hub spinners; but judging also by the demeanor of its driver, who, far from considering himself insufficiently possessed of authority in this charnel house somebody probably calls a neighborhood, might even have gone so far as to have left a banded stack of freshly-minted C-notes on the dash of his formidable ride with inarguable impunity.
The driver jaysauntered, not without a tranquil air of contained menace, across Taylor Street, and thence Turk, whose cars circumspected his passage as they might a tank’s swiveling cannon, and proceeded east along the south sidewalk of Turk Street, retracing the path I myself had just negotiated, but parting where I had only threaded the mad, the possessed, the micturating, the strung out, the effluvial, the monological, and the bipedal ant lions, toward my parked truck (I’d even put change in the meter—imagine), and on past it.
By now I should have been well north on Taylor, within the shadow of Joe’s awning at least; and I would have been, had my own business been the one I was minding. But by now I’d practically stopped walking. And mine were not the only eyes beholding the man who stood on the curb beyond the Eldorado.
Popcorn Man continued to place the odd exploded kernel onto his tongue, one at a time, daintily, as if an egg on a counter that might not be level, and chewed it slowly as he tracked the progress of the Eldorado driver, until the maroon fedora faded into the crepuscular crowd, a block east, where Turk angled into Market.
And then, with a sweep of his arm, deft as if of long practice, Popcorn Man freed the contents of his gallon bucket, casting a horizontal plume of buttered, salty kernels over the entire length of the Eldorado, as neatly as if their totality constituted a crocheted duvet, and coating the enamel as randomly and evenly and densely as the spicules of an ostrich pelt.
Only a few kernels fell to the street, but these stray puffs served notice to the odd pigeon nodding down there of the windfall its brethren aloft simultaneously became aware. Not a minute and no more than two passed before two score and more of the birds scrabbled along the Cadillac’s landau top, its vast hood, the hump of its trunk lid. They perched momentarily along the shroud of the continental kit, and the transverse sweep of the steer horns, before descending onto the field of miraculous abundance. Popped, untamed corn hopped among them, batted by nervous competitive beaks as friskily as if the long-ago rolled sheet of Detroit steel remained hot, and the kernels were fresh-popped for the occasion.
Tarrying only long enough to be assured that his work was being accomplished for him, the perpetrator dropped his spent bucket into the gutter and walked with a green light across Turk Street, unhurried. Upon gaining the opposite curb, however, he could not resist a backwards glance, a last appraisal. The pigeons, quick at their work, left only a few kernels unconsumed, but a few lingering orts, each individual fate however all but sealed. Already the odd member of the flock was departing for its post-prandial architrave or cornice. Any number, however, remained, pecking at the diminishing oddments. It didn’t take much more than a squint of the eyes and a bit of imagination to assay that, with a little more syncopation, the thudding might have emanated from a distant marching band.
Popcorn Man turned west on the far side of Turk Street where, beyond the tail of the Thanksgiving kitchen line, whose various members divided their admiring glances between his retreat and the grudging dispersal of the remaining pigeons, his drab integument blended into that of the crowd, and he disappeared. And finally all of us, strangers but a moment ago, now found ourselves joined in silent complicity over the altered spectacle of the Cadillac Eldorado.
For, all but a few birds now dispersed, every lacquered surface of the splendid chariot, its protracted fenders, the vast fields of its hood and roof and trunk, its sloping windshield and abrupt rear window, its door handles and mirrors and bumpers, the upper cowl of its continental kit, even the ivory symmetry of its steer horns and the tear-drop nacelle whence sprouted its radio antenna—all lay thoroughly stippled in the foreclosing twilight by gleaming guano daubs; the car could not have been more splattered if it had been parked beneath a scaffold teeming with drunken plasterers.
Except, of course, pigeon guano is a lot more corrosive, odoriferous, adhesive, and parti-colored—a kind of olive-tainted vanilla—than simple lime-based plaster.
Inside Original Joe’s, the Mayflower crowd had yet to put in an appearance in force, and my request for a booth by a window was easily granted. Besides—as a rule?—hardly anybody wants to watch the intersection of Turk and Taylor while they eat.
Tonight, I was the exception. Once comfortably seated I ordered turkey with all the trimmings, yams and green beans, gravy and stuffing, mince pie with whipped cream, coffee and so forth, with a double whiskey to start.
The drink arrived, and I settled against the window to wait.
art: Paul Takizawa